Molecular and Cellular Mechanisms of Antibody Activity

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B cells distinguish antigens through proteins, called antigen receptors , found on their surfaces.


An antigen receptor is basically an antibody protein that is not secreted but is anchored to the B-cell membrane. All antigen receptors found on a particular B cell are identical, but receptors located on other B cells differ. Although their general structure is similar, the variation lies in the area that interacts with the antigen—the antigen-binding, or antibody-combining, site.

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This structural variation among antigen-binding sites allows different B cells to recognize different antigens. Binding between the receptor and epitope occurs only if their structures are complementary. If they are, epitope and receptor fit together like two pieces of a puzzle, an event that is necessary to activate B-cell production of antibodies.

Each antibody molecule is essentially identical to the antigen receptor of the B cell that produced it.

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The basic structure of these proteins consists of two pairs of polypeptide chains lengths of amino acids linked by peptide bonds that form a flexible Y shape. The stem of the Y consists of one end of each of two identical heavy chains, while each arm is composed of the remaining portion of a heavy chain plus a smaller protein called the light chain. The two light chains also are identical.

Within particular classes of antibodies the stem and the bottom of the arms are fairly similar and thus are called the constant region. The tips of the arms, however, are highly variable in sequence.

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It is these tips that bind antigen. Thus each antibody has two identical antigen-binding sites, one at the end of each arm, and the antigen-binding sites vary greatly among antibodies. Antibodies are grouped into five classes according to their constant region. The classes of antibody differ not only in their constant region but also in activity.

For example, IgG, the most common antibody, is present mostly in the blood and tissue fluids, while IgA is found in the mucous membranes lining the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts. Preformed antibodies, which are derived from the blood serum of previously infected people or animals, are often administered in an antiserum to another person in order to provide immediate, passive immunization against fast-acting toxins or microbes, such as those in snakebites or tetanus infections.

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